Monday, September 11, 2006

Can you hear them, the helicopters, I'm in New York...

So it's been five years since Osama Bin laden blew a big hole in the middle of everything that we took for granted as safe and sure. This year, like last time I'm in New York for 9/11. I don't know if what I write next will make any sense. I have a student visa and a visitor's visa, I don't live in the United States even though I'm here all the time and I'm certainly not American.

I am however, a New Yorker. I spend pretty much half of each year here, but more that that, I've seen and heard my transformation to a New York State of mind, something that is equal parts worldliness, defensiveness, open-mindedness and impatience. I'll defend a freak's right to be freaky on the subway, but lose all sense of tolerance when I come across slow walking tourists on 34th and 7th. I know one person who died in Trade Center but also the last person to leave the building alive. 9/11 still seems like a surreal event, not like a film necessarily but like an unwelcome dream that refuses to leave my self conscious. I still can't believe what happened.

But like millions of non-Americans, my horror at 9/11 was also mixed with disturbing ambiguity. There's a part of me that could not believe what I was seeing but also a part of me that thought America had it coming. I was shocked, but not surprised. I've seen the very best of America at home and the very worst abroad. I found myself holding back tears even as I was getting all Malcolm X-like, muttering that the chickens have come home to roost. Sorrow and schadenfreud is not a pretty mix, but once were talking about the USA they are as inseparable as Sodom and Gomorrah. The New Yorker in me was grieving even as the foreigner in me was using everything from CIA policy's in North Africa to apocalyptic theory to explain to myself just how inevitable it all was.

I'm not actually in New York. I'm at a hotel in Pennsylvania listening to the radio on how 9/11 transformed the rest of America. The first thing I notice is that there's only one place that has moved from that day and that's New York itself. Like London, the act of moving on is just prefigured in our DNA. The only way forward is through and New Yorkers get through almost everything through sheer force of momentum. New Yorkers do not do inertia—that's for the rest of America to grapple with.

So I'm moving and grappling. It's hard to separate America's foreign policy from America itself. Bill, my best friend in the USA has also been the brunt of my most furious debates, about the ridiculousness of Americans asking non-Americans not to kill them while the American military decimates their country. I asked him if he really thought that an Iraqi woman who just lost her family should take a quiet moment, ponder a little and then come the conclusion that it was the American Government that did this, not the American People?

Yes he said.

I see his point. If the reason for living in this world is to become better citizens of it then we should all appeal to that world's better nature. But not so fast. His brother was not killed in Iraq. His family's home wasn't just destroyed to clear the way for a Haliburton Truck. And try as he can to show me how he has no power to change his government, that flies in the face of the whole freedom to choose that even the most average American boasts about.

Like many Americans, Bill was asking a question that I'm not sure he has the right to ask. He was asking non-Americans not to kill his family even as his own government was trying to kill theirs. He was saying that he tried to change his government and failed and that he shouldn't have to pay for it; that killing innocent people wherever they are is just wrong and no ideology can make it right. I understand that. But I also understand why such a statement is met with little sympathy outside of America. America convinced us that if we didn't like our governments, we simply have to change them and that was that. Now Americans are telling us otherwise. More than that, Americans are asking us an impossible favour, that we show them our best even as they or rather their government insists on showing us their worst.

That's a gift I'm not sure the world can deliver. The New Yorker in me wants to protect this city and make sure 9/11 never happens again. The foreigner in me who knows names like Larry Devlin and Henry Kissingerr and terms like destabilisation is still shaking a fist. The foreigner in me who watches as American creations like Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and Manual Noriega become monsters laughs at the blowback and concludes that the country had it coming. Bill is asking for me to look at him as simply another human being, not realising what a tall order that is. We look at American as angels or demons, or celluloid forms, not real people trying to make it through a day like everybody else. Americans are just people trying to make sense of a senseless event and trying to find some perspective in which everything might fit.

The trouble with that is that while every right thinking person in the world became an American on 9/11, most of us renounced that citizenshipp when Bush invaded Iraq. Americans stopped being a nation of people again and returned to the globally imperialist machinery that we have always known it to be. We find it hard to separate Americans from their government largely because America spent so much time convincing us that their government was chosen by the people. That makes us think that every American is to an extent responsible and there is really no such thing as an innocent victim.

But that perhaps is my own cop-out. As a Jamaican I know full well the feeling of being powerless in the presence of my own government. I just would not have expected such a feeling from an American. But when I say to the Bills of this world that I don't understand his frustration I'm hiding behind ideology, or put another way, I'm lying. I'm just not ready to accept the American citizen as being as scared, angry and confused as I am. I'm not ready to accept the American as victim or even human. I remember the first time I came to the U.S. and was stunned that all the women did not looking like Farrah Faucet all the men didn't like Patrick Duffy. I was stunned that America was a land of people and not types and that it was people who died in 9/11. That in war there are only victims and some of those victims are the ones who fired the first shot. That eye for an eye leaves the world in blindness and shot for shot leaves it empty. I'm not trying to give American a hug (well maybe new York), but I am looking for a conversation.